Thoughts on Retouching

Joe HensonAs a professional photographer, I hear more and more clients say that they can retouch their photos themselves. And they are dismayed to find out that my policy is to require that any retouching be done in house. “But why?” they protest, “I can easily do my own retouching!” As a matter of fact, it’s rare to find someone these days who doesn’t know how to wrangle a healing or cloning tool, or at the very least run their photos through an app or plug-in that blurs skin like it’s been being viewed through an early morning fog. For a short time, when viewing photos on Facebook, I thought I was developing cataracts because so many people looked impossibly smooth, soft…almost featureless. Not a good look for earth dwellers.

Retouching is one of the least understood and most misused aspects of the headshot process. And because I take pride in my work and because my work represents my aesthetic, I want to retain the right to decide how the photograph will appear in it’s final presentation state. It’s true I can’t stop someone from monkeying with my shots once they have left the studio, but once my clients see the final result of my work, they usually don’t have the desire to change it and respect my wishes.

Here is an attempt to clarify what retouching is and how to best use it to improve your photos:

There are two distinct ways to look at the purpose of retouching. The first is that retouching is an opportunity to remove minor temporary distractions that draw the viewer’s attention away from the main impact of the photo. When a sitter is frozen in space and time, there are details that draw the eye because they are out of place, and no matter how carefully someone shoots, there are always little distracting, nagging details that pull the viewer’s attention like a magnet. Stray hairs, temporary blemishes, wrinkles in clothing are all examples of minor distractions which go mostly unnoticed in real life because we are animated and interacting; moving targets to a viewer’s eye. Laugh lines or wrinkles can seem to be more noticeable because they are suspended in time and not part of a fleeting expression that we witness in real life. Those can definitely be downplayed to bring them back to how they feel in reality. Only the staunchest purists of portraiture would argue with that approach. So, in that case, the purpose of retouching is to balance out the effects of being frozen in time, and to make the representation of the person match their presence in real, animated life. In general, I think that is a useful option and results in a more realistic, less distracting impression.

The other way to approach retouching I call the “because it can be done, it should be done” school of retouching. In this approach, retouching is used to alter the look of the subject to represent more what the sitter wants to look like, as opposed to what he/she really does look like. While a minor degree of this approach might be useful to counteract the effect of an imperfect pose, or a lapse in posture, retouching the photo to drastically alter the weight or age of a sitter becomes more a representation of the subject’s ideal image than a true representation. Yes, we all want to be younger and thinner, but there is a thin line between presenting an ideal and revealing an embarrassing disconnect from reality. Don’t be the guy in the toupee who is the last to realize that nobody’s being fooled (sorry to the guy in the toupee, but someone had to tell you).

The goal of a finished, retouched photo should never be to broadcast that the photo has been retouched.  If retouching is obvious in a photo, the photograph becomes more of a rendering than a capturing, and is counter-productive, especially to the purpose of a performer’s headshot, which is to serve as a preview to the presence of the real-life actor. When that disconnect with reality becomes too much, you are setting your real life self up for being a disappointment to the viewer of the photograph. To thine ownself be true, and to thine casting director, be even truer.

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